The high-density agenda for the Admiral is indicative of the importance being accorded to this visit by the Washington Beltway

by C Uday Bhaskar

Admiral Sunil Lanba, the Indian naval chief, will embark on four-day US visit from Monday wearing the hat of Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which is the closest to India’s fragmented joint military apex.

The high-density agenda for the Admiral is indicative of the importance being accorded to this visit by the Washington Beltway.

It may be recalled that India entered into a major defence cooperation agreement with the US in June 2005 – a month before the tectonic civilian nuclear agreement was inked in July of that year. At the time then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee signed a very comprehensive defence agreement with his US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld. However, from June 2005 to March 2018, the actual realisation of the potential of that defence agreement has been modest.

Admiral Lanba is scheduled to meet the US defence apex beginning with the Defence Secretary James Mattis who is the equivalent of the Indian Defence Minister. In addition, Lanba will meet with the US Secretary of the Navy and the military top-brass that includes the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as also the naval hierarchy comprising the Chief of Naval Ops (CNO), the Pacific Commander-in-Chief and others.

The spectrum of meetings is indeed high-density and is a reiteration of the continuity and importance accorded by the USA to the defence component of the uneasy and till recently discordant bi-lateral relationship. The nuclear nettle that bedeviled the Washington-Delhi relationship for decades was harmonized only in September 2008 and in the intervening decade, the USA has transited from Bush through Obama to Trump and Delhi has moved from Manmohan Singh to Modi.

Domestic political compulsions, constraints and priorities have led to the India-US defence bi-lateral receiving episodic attention and the bureaucracies on both sides have moved in a routine manner and the word sluggish is not invalid. Absent a clear strategic appreciation of what each side expects from the other for the long term (say 30 years ) and a visible high-level political resolve, by and larger the defence relationship has been largely confined to the sale of major platforms from the USA to India through the G2G (government to government) route and a range of military exercise involving all three armed forces, with Malabar being the flagship program.

The last substantive visit by a senior US cabinet member was that of former US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in April 2016 and the phrase ‘ strategic handshake’ was the leitmotif of an ambitious visit that began in Goa. Dr. Carter in an earlier avatar in the US DoD ( Dept. of Defence) had spearheaded the DTTI (defence technology transfer initiative) and this was expected to harmonize with the Modi advocacy of ‘make in India.’

Yet, an objective and non-partisan review of the strategic, long-term policy orientation and prioritization of big ticket policy issues in the defence sector on the Modi watch, which is now in its last lap would point to very little substantive progress. India and the USA are unable to go beyond the glass-ceiling of tactical engagement (Malabar) and South Block remains diffident about identifying what it seeks from the USA in the long-term and the political apex remains distracted by continuous electioneering. Paradoxically the commitment to ‘strategic autonomy’ is asserted, on occasion in a defiant manner eben as the import bill for military inventory from diverse sources is climbing.

Hopefully the outcome of the Lanba visit will provide some clarity about the degree to which India and the USA can revisit the June 2005 defence agreement and harmonize it with the Carter led DTTI and identify the low-hanging fruit that are politically acceptable to both sides. But in the current wiring of India’s higher defence management – the Chairman COSC is not part of the policy related decision-making loop!